The Folly of Endless Genealogies

While I believe composers ought to be aware and thoughtful about their art, I must admit that I feel a measure of concern about so many composers spending so much time worrying about a musical genealogy, or the comparison of American and European music. IsnÕt it especially ironic when composers emphasize their historical links to the American maverick tradition, when historical self-awareness and obsession inhibit the maverick spirit? And because I currently live in London, IÕm mighty interested when articles such as Kyle Gann’s “Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition” seem to imply that the most interesting American composers didnÕt go to Europe. This attitude toward Europe is unfortunately not attuned to a significant phenomenon among artists; namely, that some artists find that the further they journey from the home soil, the more deeply rooted their psyche is in the elements of home. Now, those artists who, like CapoteÕs Holly Golightly, are motivated to leave home by a brand of safe-hatred, do ruffle my feathers. But I have come far from home that my imagination might be fired. When he was about my age, young William Faulkner struck out for Paris. Surely, no one can suggest that after returning home, FaulknerÕs prose didnÕt ring with a generally American, and specifically Southern tone. I have actually found here the conditions to be all more honest. Far from fitting myself into some imagined European mold, I have found a climate in which my Southern rural upbringing is (believe it or not) exotic! My teacher, Simon Bainbridge, who is sometimes called the most ÒAmericanÓ British composer, has encouraged me, saying, ÒAt the end of the day, a composer must rely on his memory and his ear.Ó And he knows and appreciates that my memory rings with Southern rural vernacular music. So, in criticizing EuropeÕs role in the lives of some artists, the critic ought to be aware of exceptions such as my self. For here I am in London, sticking out like a sore thumb with my backwoods Texas drawl, writing music with an accent just as thick as my speaking voice, and I donÕt give a damn whether it suits Europe or not. And about the musical genealogy: a wise man once said, ÒGenealogy is most important to those who havenÕt done anything for themselves.Ó